Workplace discrimination is prohibited by both federal and state laws. These tend to dovetail with each other, but as each state has different legislation, the federal laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is the one that is constant all over the United States.
Most federal workplace discrimination legislation is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). This is where you would file a charge of discrimination if you work in any workplace with 15 or more employees.
If you work in a smaller workplace, you may need to file a charge of discrimination with the equivalent state body. For example, in California, this is the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
The types of discrimination that are handled by the EEOC include discrimination based on:
- race/ ethnicity;
- religious affiliation;
- sex / gender;
- disability; and
The federal legislation which prohibits these types of discrimination include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Some states have more categories of discrimination than the federal government.
Anti-discrimination legislation also prohibits retaliation or harassment because an employee complains about discrimination or files a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
Which Government Agencies Oversee Discrimination in the Workplace?
Workplace discrimination is illegal in any part of the U.S. if the discrimination violates federal anti-discrimination laws. Most states also have their own anti-discrimination laws which are usually very similar to the federal equivalents.
If you have experienced discrimination because of your age, gender, religion, race, color, disability or sexual orientation, and have evidence of that discrimination, you should file your complaint with a government agency that enforces discrimination laws. These include the following.
- The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) investigates claims of discrimination in workplaces of 15 or more employees. It is a federal agency and works in a sharing arrangement with many state anti discrimination agencies. For more information on the EEOC, please see here.
- The New York Department of Labor. This is a state agency that investigates federal discrimination legislation breaches.
- The Division of Human Rights, New York State.
- The California Civil Rights Department.
- The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
- The New Hampshire Human Rights Commission.
- The Vermont Human Rights Commission.
- The Maine Human Rights Commission.
- The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, Connecticut.
- The Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
Note that most state anti-discrimination agencies like the Civil Rights Department in California and the Human Rights Commissions mentioned in the list above deal with smaller workplaces, so if you have a complaint of discrimination in a workplace with fewer than 15 employees, you should file your complaint first with the appropriate state agency. State agencies usually work with the EEOC when they receive a complaint.
What Is The EEOC's Role In Overseeing Discrimination In The Workplace?
Because many types of discrimination are illegal in the workplace, there is a workplace anti-discrimination agency which is responsible for overseeing cases of workplace discrimination. This is called the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).
The EEOC is an independent Federal agency created by Congress in 1964 to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Commission is made up of 5 Commissioners and a General Counsel appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
The EEOC’s main responsibility is to enforce federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an employee or a job applicant due to their race, religion, sex, sexual national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.
Most employers that have least 15 employees are covered by EEOC laws. The majority of labor unions and employment agencies are covered as well.
The laws that the EEOC oversees apply to all types of work situations, such as hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits.
As well as the EEOC some states have their own agencies which handle cases of discrimination in the workplace. For example, in California, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) protects Californians from unlawful discrimination in employment. If there has been a violation of the laws, the DFEH can pursue damages on the victim’s behalf. You can file a complaint with the DFEH online, by mail, or by phone.
What to Do If You Are Being Discriminated Against?
It is common for employers that practice discrimination to have got away with it before or discriminate regularly, e.g. always pay female employees less than males doing the same job.
Before you file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC (or your state equal employment body if you work in a small workplace) you should try and obtain as much evidence as possible of the discrimination you have been experiencing.
You can still file a claim with the EEOC with just your verbal complaint as evidence, but this might not be enough for the EEOC to use to justify sanctioning your employer.
If you do go on to file a lawsuit, normally only if the EEOC gives you permission to do so, you will certainly need some convincing evidence, otherwise it could be just your word against your employer, who will probably deny any violation of the law.
Useful forms of evidence in a discrimination case include:
- evidence that the discrimination is systematic, i.e. it has happened to other workers in the same way – get statements from co-workers or ex-workers to show this is the case;
- communication of any kind that you have had which shows discrimination or harassment – letters, notes, emails, text messages, audio or video recordings;
- notes showing who was doing the discriminating;
- times and dates and details of when discrimination took place;
- evidence that the discrimination affected your ability to do your job, such as sessions with a doctor, psychiatrist, medication taken, etc.
You can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in various ways. If you browse their portal on the Internet, you will find a form that you can use to file a complaint. It is best to talk with an employment lawyer first or if you live close to one of the 53 EEOC centers, you could visit the center and talk to an officer who can also help you file a complaint.
You can also file your complaint by letter. There is a similar procedure if you use a state employment discrimination body.
There are time limits within which you would need to file your charge of discrimination.
How an Attorney Can Help
The EEOC acknowledges that it is not easy having the courage to make a complaint about your employer. Many workers are afraid to antagonize their employer, in case they are fired.
It is important to remember that discrimination in the workplace is illegal and employers cannot retaliate against an employee who files a complaint. The agencies that enforce anti-discrimination legislation are there to stop employers from practicing discrimination against you.
It is sensible to talk directly with an employment lawyer before you actually go ahead and file a complaint with the EEOC. The lawyer will be able to judge whether your employer has broken a law and whether you have good grounds if you file a charge of discrimination.
The lawyer can also help you to obtain evidence, represent your interests in any meeting arranged with your employer by the EEOC and help file a lawsuit if the EEOC cannot resolve the issue.